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Make Way For Ducklings

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“Got one for you. See pic. Deliver it in a week or else.”

A week? Lennie owes someone money.

Josie studied the picture of a woman’s driver’s license — Irene Fisher, lives at 436 East Hadley — and smeared wasabi on her last piece of avocado roll before popping it into her mouth. The stringent spice burned her sinuses and made her eyes water as she pitched the empty container out the window of her SUV into a nearby trash can. She blinked to clear her eyes before pulling out of her parking spot. It would take her a good half hour to get to Hadley from here, so Irene might already be home from her extra unlucky traffic stop.

Asshole should tell me where he’s patrolling. Give me a way to estimate. But then Lennie had no interest in making her life easy. Lennie was only interested in her making his life easy.

As her nondescript SUV wove through sparse late-night traffic, the sharp burn of the wasabi faded from behind her eyes, only to be replaced by the duller ache of too little sleep for too many nights in a row. This would be another one. She’d need to scout the house for the next full day at least before she went in.

And this is what happens when you pull a job on your own, Shorty.

Whatever. She’d figure out a time to catnap once Irene was asleep. And she wasn’t just going to be Lennie’s fucking pet thief.

She parked by the dark house, stationed behind a perfectly manicured lawn. Didn’t look like anyone was home, but either Irene had a hell of a job, or she had a partner to help pay for that monstrosity. And whatever Irene drove that had caught Lennie’s eye.

Giving me a heads up on the make and model too much to ask?

Stealing cars, at least cars made in the last decade, wasn’t so much an art form as a misdirection. Slim jims and hotwiring didn’t cut it in the age of smart key fobs and keyless entry. Some keyless entry cars could be hacked with relay boxes that extended the RFID signal, but as that method became popular a few years back, so did ways to prevent that quick hack. If you wanted to be a car thief, you were better off knowing how to break into someone’s house. Pick a pocket. Steal a purse. Or own a tow truck. But she preferred the houses, pockets, and purses. The tow truck method always felt...exposed.

Irene Fisher was a lawyer — Josie googled her while she waited. According to Facebook, she was single, but she hadn’t updated her page in several months, and only intermittently over the past few years, so she wasn’t one for social media. Damn. It made her life so much easier when people put every detail of their whereabouts and plans online.

The car, a sleek (if a bit clichéd) Jaguar XJ pulled up a while later, the garage sliding open as it did so, and from across the street, Josie watched a slim, blonde woman climb out and enter the house before the closing garage obscured her view. Josie waited until an upstairs light came on, before slipping across the street and over to the side of the house. Side door to the garage, as good a test as any. Lock picks made short work of the simple doorknob and she took a deep breath, holding it as she opened the door. Immediately, she heard two things. One, the beep of an alarm system, requesting a code, and two, the rush of a water heater pumping hot water from the garage to somewhere above her head.

She’s in the shower.

Usually, she was a careful thief. She scouted her targets for days, mapped schedules, made contingency plans, established escape routes and cover stories. She’d been to prison once and she had no intention of going again — something which Lennie loved to hang over her. You wanna work with me, or you wanna go back inside? Your choice, Shorty.

But.

Get this done now and I can go home, get some sleep, plan and pull off a job on my own before he feels safe enough to toss another one my way. It was enough to get her moving the moment she realized the shower was running. She sprinted in front of the cars — the Jag and a more modest Lexus — hit the garage button as she opened the door to the house, and there, dangling on a hook by the door were the keys. Thank God for rich people organization. The alarm settled into its shrieking warning tones, but she was already in the car, reversing down the drive and away, pressing the button to close the garage behind her.

She didn’t have much time, stealing it on the fly like this, and Lennie’s new chop shop guys were going to kill her if she brought in a too-hot car. Lefty — well, Lefty probably would have killed someone for that too, but that was before she’d known he was capable of murder. Before everything changed...and didn’t.

She had to get this car hidden, and kill the battery, but no, shit they’ll still be able to track its last known location, and fuck, this is why I always plan —

“What you need is an EMP cannon and a big hill. I have the first, and the second is about two blocks away, take a left NOW.”

Instead of doing that, Josie screamed, wrenching the wheel and the car fishtailed wildly for a moment before she managed to get it under control again. A blonde woman—wait? Irene?? No, not Irene, though she was wearing the clothes Irene had worn going into the house—climbed out of the back seat, somehow managing to make the transition look graceful.

“LEFT!”

Josie twisted the wheel, far too aware of how much her hands were sweating and she couldn’t lose control now, not of the car or herself, but this was — they passed under a streetlight and she got a brief but clear look at the woman’s face — “P-PARKER?”

The woman beamed widely at her. “Hi! I found out you were in trouble.”

“I’m in trouble?” They’d reached the top of the hill Parker’d mentioned, and started down the other side. The winding road had no streetlights, and she was glad of the Jag’s high beams illuminating the asphalt ahead of her.

“Well, duh.” Parker reached back and grabbed something cylindrical that looked vaguely familiar. “Shift to neutral.”

She did it without questioning. It wasn’t that Parker inspired confidence, exactly, she just seemed to inhabit the eye of a constant hurricane, so it was better to stick close.

The answer to her non-question became horribly clear a moment later, when Parker blasted the car they were sitting in, rolling down a dark, 45% grade hill with an EMP cannon and killed the entire electrical system.

“Don’t crash,” she advised, as Josie tried to get her eyes to adjust to dim moonlight after the brightness of the high beams and not drive off the edge of what could be a cliff for all she knew. “And don’t tap the brakes, we need all the speed we can get.”

For what?

Her heart rate picked up speed in time with the car, hurling down the road, careening through two thankfully empty intersections, veering in a wide left to keep up the downhill ride, before Parker pointed her at an abandoned overpass and finally let her hit the brakes.

She slumped over the steering wheel, trying to remember a time her heart wasn’t in her throat, and gasped, “Now what?”

“Now we take down Officer Leonard Williams.” She couldn’t see much of Parker’s smile, but it had enough teeth to look dangerous.

“It’s not that simple —” she began, but Parker shook her head sharply.

“It is simple. You’re being blackmailed. I don’t like blackmailers, and I really don’t like blackmailers messing with my friends.”

We’re friends? She was just some kid who screwed things up for Parker’s crew over a decade ago. But she wasn’t going to point that out. “It’s complicated  — I’m...not exactly legal?”

“Psshh, so? I’m never legal. Especially not when I’m being the law. Speaking of, we need to get a move on, lots to do, and I don’t have backup.”

“Um. Where is —”

“Later. Here’s the plan.”

 

~~~~~

 

She’d gotten out of the habit of making plans that relied on just her. Not that she couldn’t do it, of course she could, she was Parker. She could steal anything.

Let’s go steal a thief...but “let’s” was something the leader of a crew would say, and she wasn’t that. Not anymore.

Still this was doable. She wouldn’t fail Josie again.

“It’s still going to be easy to find the car,” Josie said, “Irene — wait, are you Irene?”

“Temporarily. Irene’s on vacation in Bali, so contacting her is going to take a while. They’ll send a cruiser around the house, but you hit the garage button,” she tapped the black rectangle on the visor, “as you pulled out. Good thinking. All they’ll see is one unlocked side door. People forget that door all the time.”

The compliment put the barest flicker of a smile on Josie’s face, before it vanished behind worry. “I know. But there’s also a missing JAG.”

“And the keys are gone too. They can’t be sure it’s stolen yet.” She realized she was petting Hardison’s EMP cannon and stopped. “Anyway, that’s not important.”

“Lennie’s going to hear the dispatch. He sent me to that house. If — if he…” she stopped, her breathing shallow and rapid.

“Yup, that’s the idea.”

“WHAT?”

“I made sure he pulled me over.” So annoying, going slow enough to get caught. But worth it. “And when I got back to Irene’s house, you were sitting across the street, so I turned the shower on and then went back down to hide in the car.”

“So the shower’s still running back at the house?”

“Uhhhm...” Oops. Eliot growled a dammit, Parker, but it was only inside her head. Real Eliot couldn’t know, not until the job was done.

“Why? Why pretend to be Irene? And how did you know I’d steal the car then?”

“I didn’t, but the opportunity was there and you’re a good thief.”

“No! I’m not! I didn’t think it through and I did something risky and now I have a car I can’t drive and he doesn’t like when there’s that much heat on him, and he’s going send me back and—”

“Hey! No, he isn’t.” She didn’t like the way Josie’s brain short-circuited when it came to Lennie. It opened a pit of cold in her belly. People who made that pit got forks in their shoulders. “I’m not just Irene. I’m also Agent Hagen with the FBI, I have proof that Officer Leonard Williams is forcing his CI to steal cars for him, and with the help of that CI,” she paused to grin at a stunned Josie, “I’ll have the chop shop he’s using as well.”

It was a good plan. So good it worked. Mostly.

She did have to call Hardison last minute to provide some quick backup and because he was Hardison, he did it without pointing out that she’d broken her promise. He just thought it loudly enough that he didn’t need to say it. Usually that was an Eliot trick.

And she forgot how cornered men lose control when trapped.

Stupid. I’m rusty.

Lennie, coming to the chop shop under the pretense of arresting Josie for the possession of a car reported stolen, instead found himself surrounded by FBI and state police, and Josie staring at him, unable to stop a smile.

“YOU BITCH!” He lunged at her and Josie’s eyes went huge as she tried to avoid him.

No. Never again. Parker stepped in his path, raising a hand to block him. He caught her wrist and twisted it viciously. She heard, more than felt, the dull snap of bone, as the opening gave her a chance to press her taser up against his ribs. He spasmed and dropped to the ground, twitching.

She looked down at her wrist, hanging limp and painful. “Eliot’s going to kill me.”

Josie stepped up beside her to stare down at her tormentor. “It’s my fault,” she offered hesitantly.

Parker shook her head. “No, I’m out of practice. He shouldn’t have caught me.” She kicked Lennie once, none too gently. “He’s had a lot of experience twisting arms, hasn’t he.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah.”

See? Eliot will understand. She didn’t want to think about what Hardison was telling Eliot right now, so she forced a bright smile. “So! You’re free!”

“Yeah. I guess I am.” Josie’s smile looked as fake as hers felt. “So are you, uh, going home now?”

“Yes. First I need to get this set. There’s a clinic near…” she stopped, noticing the disappointment Josie wasn’t very good at hiding. “Would you drive me?” Not that she couldn’t drive with a broken wrist. She could. She was Parker. But the other thief’s face got instantly hopeful and she nodded eagerly, and that was...nice.

“Why did you come back?” Josie asked as they drove off in one of the unmarked cars, taking advantage of the confusion at the scene to slip away without anyone noticing.

“I wanted to ask you how to stop being a thief.”

Josie laughed bitterly. “Clearly I’m not the best person to ask. Why?”

“It’s complicated.” She always hated that as an answer, and here she was using it. But it was. “Are you going to stop being a thief now?”

Josie hesitated. “It’s complicated.”

They arrived at the clinic before Parker could wrangle an explanation out of her. It was bright and clean and staffed 24/7 now. She could barely remember the dilapidated building they’d helped save on the private school job all those years ago.

She got her wrist set and promised that she’d keep the removable cast on so they wouldn’t give her a plaster one. Maybe, when she got back, she could take it off and pretend nothing happened? Unlikely. Josie stayed with her the whole time, hovering in the background and providing a convenient excuse for Parker not to answer the calls filling her phone.

“So,” she said when they got back into the car. “Complicated?”

The girl sighed. “I’m a felon with false papers. The only reason I haven’t been deported is Lennie, and now he’s gone. Good riddance, but still. Complicated.”

“False papers?”

“Yeah, my mom brought me here from China when I was three? I think? My dad was some American businessman who’d promised her the world and booked it when he found out she was pregnant and she came to find him. Didn’t work out, so she left me here.”

“Alone?”

“With my cousins. They had a semi-legit car stereo business. They…”

“Knew Lefty.”

“Yeah, like I said. Semi-legit. Anyway, they got busted, so I went to Lefty and that’s where I was when your crew took him down. Lennie and Lefty were old friends. Lennie’s always been crooked, and he found me and said I had to start boosting cars for him or he’d get me deported.”

“He knew?”

“My papers came from Lefty’s crew, so yeah, he knew. Came to my high school and had a chat with me about my “options” in the parking lot in view of everyone. Even Paul saw, from his classroom. So I did it. Not that it mattered. He arrested me right after I turned eighteen. Probably was getting too much heat and needed a patsy. Got five years, out in three, and he was waiting at the gate. I became his “CI” and it all started again.”

“And Paul?”

“He was...nice. Too nice,” she said, and Parker knew exactly what she meant. Too naive. Paul had needed their help because he was stupid to begin with. “I couldn’t tell him about Lennie—he’d do something stupid. When I went down, he visited once to tell me he was disappointed in my life choices and that was that.”

Parker ground her teeth. “So what do you want?”

Josie looked surprised and maybe a bit hurt. “N-nothing.”

“Yes, you do.” Her tone was wrong, she realized; her anger about Paul bleeding through. “I want to help you,” she continued, softer. “And I thought I did, but if I didn’t do it right, then I failed. And I don’t like failing.” She glanced down at her wrist. “I thought I’d helped the first time too.”

“It’s stupid.”

“I can’t tell you that it’s stupid until you tell me.”

Josie bit her lip, before finally letting the words burst out. “I want to come with you! I wanted to back then! But I nearly got you guys killed! How could I ask after that? And now you’re out of the game. I can’t follow you around like some duckling. So it’s stupid.”

“That’s not stupid. I know stupid. Paul was stupid.” Parker said. She knew plenty about not belonging, and the ache that came from wanting to. She’d taught the girl how to boost. Told her that those car thieves weren’t her family, then left her to be normal. She’d learned about people in the eleven years since. And about belonging. “Okay.”

“What?”

“You’ll have to come to Albuquerque. Which doesn’t have enough tall buildings. But there is a three-thousand-foot watermelon mountain and it has a tramline with terrible security, so it’s easy to slide down it at midnigh —”

“Parker. You’re serious?”

“Of course. Eliot has horses now, so why shouldn’t I have a duckling? Alec will — We should stop by Paul’s before we leave Boston though. He needs to be punched.”

“Don’t bother. He’s not worth it.” She paused. “Um. You live with Eliot? Will he mind? I sorta nearly killed him?”

“Lots of people do that.” The last person nearly succeeded and it was so close, so close, never again...She shook her head, hard. “He and Alec are probably mad at me, because I left and did a job without telling them, and I promised I wouldn’t be a thief. Oh, and I got hurt, but he won’t be mad at me about that, he’ll be mad at himself.” She realized she was babbling and clamped her lips shut. But Josie didn’t look reassured, so she had to open them again. “He won’t be mad at you. I promise.”